The long shadow line: History and the war on drugs

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What can the tobacco trade of the 17th century tell us about the modern war on drugs? Charles C Mann, whose new book has been called a 'historical Freakonomics', draws the parallels

It is fair to say that the global drug war began 400 years ago this autumn, when a man named John Rolfe obtained tobacco seeds from the Caribbean.

Rolfe was a colonist in Jamestown, Virginia, the first successful English settlement in the Americas. Most people know him today, if they know him at all, as the man who married Pocahontas, the "Indian princess" in countless romantic stories. A few history buffs understand that by taking tobacco to Jamestown, Rolfe launched the Virginia tobacco market – the primary force behind Jamestown's eventual success. That success hints at a third, still more important role: inadvertently, Rolfe's tobacco set the template for today's £200bn trade in illegal drugs.

Tobacco rose and fell and rose and fell in a 400-year smoking spree that established a pattern for the trade in all addictive substances. Beginning with tobacco, governments have sought to ban drugs as soon as they arrive, invariably invoking their destructive effects on family and nation. Without exception, the bans have produced waves of criminality and the criminals have become threats to political stability in the areas in which they operate (the Caribbean in the 17th century, northern Mexico in our own time). Governments waffle between turning blind eyes to the criminals and fighting them bloodily. The ultimate ends of this process – legalisation, social stigma, and, most direly, unfashionability – suggest what will happen to the global market for marijuana and heroin.

Nicotiana tabacum, as botanists call it, was the first global commodity craze. Fun, exotic, hallucinogenic and addictive, it was – is – a near-perfect consumer product. England fell under its spell in the 1580s, when the survivors of the nation's first, unsuccessful colonies – the Roanoke ventures of Sir Walter Raleigh – landed in Brighton with strange, fiery clay tubes at their lips. Obviously conscious of the impact of their appearance, they descended on the docks, smoking languidly, like so many Elizabethan versions of James Dean and Humphrey Bogart. By 1607, when Jamestown was founded, London's streets were jammed with more than 7,000 tobacco "houses" – café-like places where the city's growing throng of nicotine junkies could buy and consume tobacco.

None of this was exceptional. Between 1580 and 1610, Nicotiana tabacum, a species originally from the Amazon, became a fixture in every inhabited part of the earth. Almost immediately it attracted governmental ire. Bans on tobacco, some enforced by the death penalty, were enacted by France, Russia, Sweden, the Ottoman and Mughal empires, and the Japanese shogunate. The smoking weed quickly became so ubiquitous in Manchuria, according to historian Timothy Brook, that in 1635 the Khan, Hong Taiji, discovered that his soldiers "were selling their weapons to buy tobacco". Enraged, he prohibited smoking.

No anti-tobacco crusader is better known than King James I, whose Counterblaste to Tobacco, issued in 1604, proclaimed that smoking was "lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the nose, harmefull to the braine, [and] dangerous to the lungs". James sought to ban tobacco outright, but was rebuffed by a hostile Parliament. Pope Urban VIII was more successful. Infuriated by reports that priests were celebrating mass with lighted cigars, the Pope promptly – and successfully – prohibited smoking in the pulpit.

Demand continued unabated. Even as James thundered against tobacco's destructive effect on society, the weed itself was sometimes sold for its weight in silver in London. In the English colony of Bermuda, farmers routinely purchased brides for bags of tobacco (typically, the weight was about 100lb). Across the globe, gangs of young smokers in Edo (Tokyo) were so outraged by the high price of a smoke that they routinely ransacked tobacco warehouses. Customs officials in Istanbul, unable to afford a pipeful, routinely shook down visitors for smoking supplies.

Coupled with high demand, tobacco criminalisation drove up its price, which led to an explosion of tobacco bootleggery that continues to the present day. Pirates grew and sold tobacco throughout the Caribbean, especially in Venezuela. Outraging the Spanish crown, Spanish and Indian smallholders in remote colonial areas converted their wheat and maize plots to tobacco, then sold the harvest to Dutch and English pirates. So powerful did the gangs become that the Spanish ambassador to England complained that English demand was causing the collapse of law and order in tobacco country. (This is not confined to the past: cigarette smuggling remains a major industry in pirate havens from southern Italy to South-east China, but is also common in less rambunctious areas; police in suburban Maryland rolled up an alleged tobacco ring in the eastern US just last month.) Even as moralists like James thundered that tobacco was destroying the family, royal tax officials were eyeing its legalisation. Few programs generate revenue more reliably than a tax on an addictive substance.

In economic terms, addicts' cravings are inelastic – they are relatively insensitive to cost. If they keep getting their hit, they will happily pay the higher prices associated with government-imposed taxes, fees and levies. Within a year of his Counterblaste, the English government had instituted its first tobacco tax.

Prohibitionists might note a disturbing parallel. Everywhere in the world, the lure of tobacco money eventually overwhelmed efforts to prevent addiction. The son of Hong Taiji, the Manchu Khan who banned tobacco, finished seizing China and in 1644 became the first emperor of the Qing dynasty. He, too, fought against tobacco. But Hong Taiji's grandson, the Kangxi emperor, started smoking at the age of seven – and watched new tobacco taxes become major financial contributors to the Qing state.

One by one, other states slowly followed the Manchu lead, legalising and taxing tobacco. Marijuana is following the same path, slowly becoming tax fodder in nation after nation. Here Mughal India was perhaps the first society to reverse course (the East India Company later added opium taxes to the mix). Decades later, countries such as the Netherlands followed the Mughal path. Even in the notoriously anti-drug US, places such as California and Massachusetts, hard hit by recession, are considering marijuana's use as a taxable commodity.

Yet history should not give too much encouragement to the forces behind unfettered legalisation, either. If tobacco and other drugs are a guide, legalisation is followed, eventually, by social disapproval. Everywhere that tobacco has become a fully accepted commodity its use has – eventually, after decades – declined. The tobacco-besotted colonial US, the nation that held the world's most permissive views on tobacco during the 17th and 18th centuries, ultimately became the land where bewildered European and Asian smokers would be ejected from restaurants, cafés and bars. Even as recently as the 1980s, Britons mocked the "puritanical" anti-tobacco crusades in the US. They have fallen into line. So have the Italians, Turks and even the Chinese.

Drugs that become uncool fall into disuse, as tobacco is falling into disuse today. If history is any guide, our grandchildren's grandchildren will regard today's struggles over marijuana, cocaine and opium as bewildering fossils of an unsavvy past.

'1493 – How Europe's Discovery of the Americas Revolutionized Trade, Ecology and Life on Earth' by Charles C Mann is published by Granta (£25). To order a copy for the special price of £19.99 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk

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